Saturday, October 14, 2006

Part III: Mutually Empowered Evangelism

This post will represent my greatest passion for neo-monasticism, and at the same time will make a stand against the greatest misrepresentation of the system. Perhaps the most resounding criticism of traditional monasticism is that it generally does not allow Christians to be ‘salt and light’ in the world in a very effective way. Traditional forms of monasticism have often been separatist and isolationist. But those forms are not the model for neo-monasticism. Rather, neo-monasticism will exist to make the Christian presence and witness in the world more effective.

These observations won’t be true for all American Christians, but they are certainly true for me. In general, though, I’ve found that most evangelical Christians (myself included) aren’t doing a fantastic job when it comes to evangelism of any kind. As the church, one of our greatest duties, privileges, and joys is to reach out to those around us with the love of Christ. But, cumbered by fears of offending others, we seldom if ever speak the message that is closest to our hearts. For my part, as an introvert, the idea of evangelism in the traditional Western form of door-to-door witnessing frightens me more than almost anything else in the world. I’ve witnessed to strangers before, in moments when I felt the Lord was calling me to that witness, but those were some of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’ve run away from that call far more times than I’ve obeyed it.

First of all, I should make clear that I believe evangelism to be of preeminent importance to all Christians in their contacts with the world. Many Christians nowadays either don’t believe that or choose not to think about it. We’ve stopped preaching the truth about eternal destiny, and so it becomes easy to forget that many of those we meet are moving swiftly on their way to hell. If we could experience just one glimpse, just one taste of how much the Lord loves these people, we would sell away our lives and journey to the ends of the earth if only to have a single chance to tell them about Christ.

That said, I don’t think all evangelism has to be done by the traditional forms of witnessing to strangers. If some Christians are gifted for that ministry, they should do it with all their hearts. For those Christians who aren’t gifted in that way, it would still be a valuable spiritual discipline to undertake from time to time, and we should always be openly and actively watching for the possibility. However, the most effective evangelism will harness the individual’s specific spiritual gifts, and not all of us are gifted for evangelism in the traditional sense. This is why I think the most effective Christian witness is a witnessing church. As John Stott said in a recent Christianity Today article, “I believe that evangelism is specially through the local church, through the community, rather than through the individual. That the church should be an alternative society, a visible sign of the kingdom. And the tragedy is that our local churches often don’t seem to manifest community.”

The local body of believers should be arranged so that we can work together in the task of evangelism. In a neo-monastic community, the members would plan out ways to employ their gifts to that end. They would set up public seminars where those gifted to teach could teach. They would serve public meals in which those gifted with hospitality could minister their outreach. They would encourage and uphold those gifted specifically for evangelism, helping to foster relationships with the outside world.

The neo-monastic community would not be a closed system intended to keep the world out. Some areas of life might be regulated by the community, but members would be encouraged to continue their jobs and relationships outside the community. Children, upon the discretion of their parents, would be encouraged to go to public schools. The life of the community itself would be geared towards renewing and recharging the members daily for their mission in the world. Outreach would be constantly set forward as the goal of the community, making it an unforgettable part of daily life.

I know that for me, witness is much easier when it is constantly emphasized and encouraged by those around me. It is far easier for me to live a bold and consistent outward witness on the mission field in Africa than it is for me here at home. Why is that? I’m the same person in both places. The difference is merely one of mindset. On the mission field, I know I’m a missionary. Witness is what I’m there for, so that’s what I do, and the other members of the mission team remind me of that and encourage me in it. So that’s what I think we need to do here in America. We need to develop a communal system of mutual support and encouragement that will help us build conscious identities as missionaries. And then I think we’ll find to our surprise that witness and evangelism are much easier than we supposed them to be. More than that, outreach will become our constant aim and our highest joy. There is no greater delight in the world than being used as an active witness for the sake of Christ.

The missional neo-monastic community would also seek to model the consistent love of Christ to a watching world. It’s been said that the best gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother well. I would say the same of the church—the best gift that we can give to a watching world is to love one another well. The best witness of all is the love of the church, a redeemed community that, despite all its struggles and differences, works to live together in harmony for the good of all people. As the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” That is a picture of the church that is rarely seen in our culture, and I think it’s one we need to pursue. We settle too often for so much less than we could be as the Body of Christ, and that is one of the great tragedies of every church in every age.

Finally, this focus on evangelism as a part of every believer’s life would also help to correct another unconscious error of contemporary Christianity—that ‘ministry’ is just what pastors do. This is a dangerous misconception. Ministry is what every Christian does. Ministry is a word that should characterize every aspect of our relational lives. The pastor is a specially-appointed servant of the Body of Christ, a leader and guide for a community of ministers. All believers must be engaged in the tasks of ministry, using their gifts to the glory of God and the good of those around them. If we close ourselves off from this incredible mandate, we are missing out on the greatest adventure of all. Ministry and outreach might frighten us from time to time, as they certainly do me, but in the end I wouldn’t trade the privilege of ministry for anything else in the world. In the words of Paul Tournier, “If something isn’t fearful, it probably isn’t worth doing.” Ministry is fearful, but there is almost nothing else worth doing more than this.